Football: Belles face tough run-in: The women's National Premier League is being fought to a tight finish. Pete Davies reports

THE midfielders work in factories, the leading scorer's in the DSS, the sweeper's a bank clerk, and the centre-half's a police officer who arrests opposing forwards with unanswerable firmness.

PC Louise Ryde is 28 and 5ft 4in tall. Before they abolished the height restrictions she couldn't get on the force, so when an offer came to play in Bologna for pounds 500 a month and an apartment, she took it. She stayed three months. 'You look at the Belles, the way we get on, the way that shows on the pitch - I missed it. And I don't think the game itself is much better over there. The difference is that the men there, they'll go watch football whoever's playing it.'

But for the Doncaster Belles, the outstanding side in English women's football this past decade, anything over 200 is a decent gate. For all their achievements - women's FA Cup finalists 11 times in 12 years, winners six times - every game is a battle for credibility.

At their game with Arsenal yesterday morning, a table-topping six-pointer as the women's National Premier League season comes to an end, the crowd barely topped 100 - but even so, Ryde says it's getting better. She works on Merseyside. 'When I started, they said: 'You play football? Who for?' - like the idea was ridiculous - but now when I say the Belles, they've heard of us.'

It's been a while coming. The Belles were founded in 1969 by a teenager named Sheila Stocks who sold Golden Goals tickets at Doncaster Rovers' games, and fancied having a go herself. A teacher now, 41 years old, she still gets on as a substitute, and when she does she probably gets more stick from the manager than anyone else, because she's married to him.

Paul Edmunds is a teacher too; he played pro for three years with Leicester and Bournemouth before injuries did for him. When they started courting and Sheila said she played he avoided going at first, in case they were terrible and he wouldn't know what to say. But then he did go and he's been involved ever since, and there are times when the lack of respect begins to irk him.

He'd like an assistant manager, 'But people I've known in the game still think women's football is the lowest of the low. They'd prefer to be in charge of a Sunday morning pub team than the best women's team in the country. No matter what my arguments - that I've walked out at Wembley with these, been on TV with them, coached 12 internationals in one session - they still say it's not proper football, is it?' '

In one regard, he's happy it isn't. 'They take it very seriously - but there's a side of professionalism they don't have, the win-at-all-costs thing, the elbow, cheating, leaving your leg in late. They haven't got that, and I hope they never do.'

As the third season of the 10-team Premier League nears its end, however, that Corinthian spirit is under pressure. Won by the Belles in '92 and by Arsenal Ladies last year, these two are battling it out again, and Arsenal (surprise, surprise) are felt to have brought an unsmiling professionalism to the contest that has aroused widespread dislike. When they played the Millwall Lionesses at Highbury 10 days ago, one of the Millwall players wore an old pair of boots, so she could throw the polluted footwear away afterwards.

Millwall had a 1-0 lead pegged back in the closing minutes; Arsenal then won a dubious penalty and in the aftermath, an Arsenal player allegedly butted a Millwall defender, who required stitches. Disciplinary action is now pending - and when the Belles ran out against Arsenal at Hendon yesterday they knew it, and it added spice to their desire to regain the championship.

They went 1-0 up with a towering header from Karen Skillcorn after six minutes - but then the goalkeeper Tracy Davidson, normally solid as a rock, let in a freakish equaliser on 20 minutes, a harmless punt forward rearing with a Joel Garner bounce over her disbelieving head.

She made amends with two fingertip saves in the next minutes, while the quick and elegant England striker, Gail Borman, hit the crossbar at the other end - but in the second half a strong-running Arsenal scored twice from corners (sounds familiar) and the Belles faced their first defeat in 22 outings this season. At the close they had a shot cleared off the line, a header shaving inches wide, and a chipped lob winging narrowly over the bar: it wasn't their day.

Paul Edmunds told them: 'We're disappointed. We've let in three dreadful goals and that's been the difference; they weren't 3-1 better than us. But we can still win this, so get your heads up. We don't sit in twos and threes in little corners in this club talking it around and around - we get together. Now we've got a big game Wednesday night. . .'

A fixture log-jam has left the Belles with four games to play in the next fortnight, while Arsenal have completed their programme; the Belles must win three of them.

From the looks on their faces in the dressing-room, the four teams in question (Stanton Rovers, Red Star Southampton, Knowsley United and Wembley) face some very determined women indeed.

(Photograph omitted)